Southgate and Austin give signs of hope at club and county level

You wouldn’t immediately draw comparisons between the man charged with creating the next piece of England football history, Gareth Southgate, and the man given the task of resetting a League Two outfit, Dean Austin (especially in their respective characters) but the last few weeks of World Cup build up has turned a lot of people on to what some probably knew all along with Southgate and what we and Austin can take on board in the coming months.

Southgate has changed many a mind over the months leading up to Russia and while his team still have plenty to do to match achievements of the past there’s been an evidential move towards the acceptance and joy in what he’s trying to do with his group of players. His idea of the collective over the individual, never evident more than in his dropping of Wayne Rooney (perhaps the final bastion of the latest superstar era) should be applauded not matter what the outcome of the knockout stages.

He’s insisted that everyone get a fair crack of the whip in his squad and wasn’t afraid of the bad press or questioning of his line up for the final group game against Belgium. Players have been given their World Cup moment that they may never get again thanks to the rotation and the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold in particular would surely have been revelling inside at lining up for a World Cup outing at the age of nineteen. Try telling him that this was a ‘second string.’

Southgate’s promoting of young players like Alexander-Arnold to the grandest stage came without a fanfare and instead arrived in a more in a matter-of-fact manner that appears to have given them the right balance between having the freedom to play and the knowledge and confidence that they are good enough and can own their place at the top table.

The way he’s conducted himself in the post Allardyce world of England management means that most of us are now looking back at Allardyce’s slip up as a blessing in disguise. Can any of us have imagined this World Cup creating as much buzz in the country with Big Sam at the helm? Would we have ever won a group game 6-1 under his watch? Highly doubtful.

We, as Cobblers fans, have seen these ideas come to life earlier this summer, albeit in a shorter and more intense period of time. But if you’re looking for comparisons for a burst of passion, a sudden ownership of identity and a logical and level headed leader then you can do worse than look at our very own management.

The return of Town’s players and staff this week reminded us of that extraordinary finale to the league season where the Cobblers were relegated but sent down fighting and Austin’s return to the spotlight is a welcome addition to the summer considering that England are still ploughing away over in Russia. It may not still be the case by the time we conclude the first friendly of the summer on Tuesday night around 45 minutes after the end of England’s clash with Columbia but we can, of course, dream of a larger cross over of club and country.

It only seems like yesterday that Austin sent his men out ‘hunting’ at Walsall but the early signs are that full time management hasn’t changed him a bit and that we’re in for one heck of a ride under his stewardship.

Just as Southgate has seemingly reinvigorated his England players, staff and fans, Austin has the ability and pride to do the same in the build-up to and start of the 2018/19 season that looms almost a month from now. The comparisons in the respective camps are numerous.

For Alexander-Arnold see the fearless nature of Shaun McWilliams entering the fray – eventually, after an inexplicable and infuriating spell out of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s plans – under Austin. No-one echoed the characteristics of his manager more than the midfielder who has every chance to become a major player in the Cobblers’ plans next season. There’s also the emergence of Morgan Roberts and Shaun Whaler, brought through in a similarly no-nonsense way by Austin and his excellent youth team staff as England’s young lions have been.

Just as Southgate has created a sense of calm authority, Austin re-enters the stage with similar ideals. While his nature is perhaps a bit grittier there are still signs of a similar steely authority to the England boss. Austin’s week has been spent putting his team through the pre-season rigors and there seems no sign of letting up from last season’s belief in his group of players.

And finally, Austin continues to be a fresh voice when conducting media and press duties. Nothing of the Austin of the caretaker manager era has been lost in the summer break and it sounds as if he’s been comping at the bit to get back at it.

Togetherness, drive, a focus on youth and a manager at the helm to be proud of and look up to – both England and Northampton Town seem in very good hands for the rigours to come.

World Cup Blog #4 – It’s all over


The ‘Brothers Terrace’ were left devastated by Thursday’s events…

England…Oh, England. The four-yearly cries of agony have come much earlier this time around with the World Cup now offering just a consolation game against Costa Rica for England to run through before boarding the plane home. The team once again gave us brief, glorious hope when Wayne Rooney broke his World Cup duck on Thursday evening by equalising Luis Suarez’s opener and for a few minutes breathed fresh life into the campaign.

But that man Suarez wasn’t finished yet and the goal that we’ll see over and over again – alongside Beckham’s kick, Ronaldo’s wink and Ronaldinho’s free kick that baffled David Seaman – was the bullet heard around the country. Uruguay had come back from a threat that looked like we may even nick a win and to send us into despair.

England were not close to the standard of the Italy defeat with a nervy start leading to Suarez’s first goal and not enough going forward to suggest that we could break down their stubborn resistence. You once again got the feeling that we were susceptible to the incredible talents of the man who is so much more than a pantomime villain on these shores. Suarez’s gifting sets him apart on the football pitch…if only it stretched to a grounded personality that complemented it. Had Lionel Messi been the one to use his extra yard of pace and thought to beat us there I wouldn’t have thought there would be half as much frustration come Friday morning.

As it is, though, we are left to lick our considerable wounds. No matter how many people have played with or against Suarez you just can’t plan completely for dealing with him and the England defence were simply not good enough to handle him for ninety minutes. At the back is where many of our problems remain and this system needs a little adjustment to ensure that we go into (hopefully!) the next major competition with practiced and competent shielding for our biggest Achilles heel.

Costa Rica becomes a game where we could really do with giving “the kids” a fair crack of the whip. There’s nothing to play for and nothing at stake for us and this is surely as good a time as any to unleash a Ross Barkley or to blood a Luke Shaw at the top level. If any good can come from a game like this then setting ground work for the upcoming qualifying campaign for France 2016 is it.

Keeping Roy Hodgson in the top job is best for all parties despite this exit. We’ve been placed in a treacherous group and had we been lucky enough to be slotted into the type of group that we’ve had before I’m almost certain we’d all be sat here singing the praises of our vibrant national side. Roy deserves a chance to bring these young lads through the next qualifying campaign and the European Championships themselves.

Standing in our way in that respect are Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino. With more teams qualifying this time it means that the first, second and some third placed finished qualify direct to the finals and the next best eight teams go to the playoffs so if we don’t end up doing this all again in France then something has gone horribly wrong!

I didn’t think I’d be looking towards that so soon and before we’d even played our third group game but that’s how we stand with plenty of questions to be answered in the coming months. Now all we can do is enjoy this magnificent competition which is throwing up results that we can only be envious of.

After that, we can start to worry about the Cobblers again…whisper is quietly but we play our first friendly even before the World Cup Final takes place…

World Cup Blog #3 – Reflections on a very different defeat…

sterlingLosing the first game in a World Cup is generally considered to be terminal when it comes to bids to qualify from the group stages and England’s defeat to Italy last night may well be the first stamp on a return trip home but the weird thing is that I’ve seen England teams win group games before and felt much more negative about the overall outlook.

How refreshing too is it that, on first glance anyway, the Sunday papers and match reports aren’t photo shopping vegetables in place of players and managers’ heads but instead bringing up plenty of positives from a showing that was enough to soften the blow of defeat. This England side has a fantastic vibrancy about it and actually looking forward to games is in itself a welcome detour from the usual dread that fills the veins of World Cups and European Championships.

I’m sure there’s plenty out there who don’t agree and think that only wins matter but, as this excellent article on the evolution of the Belgian side, sometimes you just have to accept that results may not go our way when we’re blooding these exciting youngsters.

Raheem Sterling was the shining star on this occasion – he simply has no fear of reputation, he gets his head down and he just runs at defences. That’s all we’ve asked of others who have come through in the last few years and failed to carry through club form into the national side partly thanks to this dreadful complex our media sometimes has that it’s either win or we’re failures. The general outlook this morning is as refreshing as last night’s efforts were and perhaps we are on the cusp of re-evaluating our position in world football.

Italy were a lot stronger than I’d envisaged and were clever in possession. It was so crucial that we got back into the game thanks to Daniel Sturridge’s well taken equaliser – the Italians are brought up on possession football and making the opposition work for it and that was key to their eventual victory here. The heat was playing its part by the later stages and after a maturing Mario Balotelli header put Italy back in front just after the break they made no more mistakes in letting us back in.

That meant chasing the game and with substitutions having to be made Sterling’s influence diminished as his energy sapped following a rejig that pushed him wider late in the game. Contrary to past England teams, though, we actually looked threatening and capable of breaking down the stubborn resistence of the Italian wall. They were more interested in keeping what they had the tactic was a testament to England’s attacking threat.

A few misplaced crosses and corners made up the final throws of our dice late on but we were at least getting into those positions. All of this sounds like a hard luck story and like a misunderstanding non-football fan saying “ah well, it’s just a game” but I’m genuinely excited about our national side again and if we come out of the competition all feeling that way then surely that’s actually better than scraping through the group playing poorly and crashing out as soon as we meet a big nation in Round Two?

The few negatives this morning all centre around Wayne Rooney and his showing on the left side of the attacking three that sat behind Sturridge. I’m torn on his involvement – on the one hand it’s clearly not his strongest position and Italy caused us problems time after time on that side of the pitch but on the other he’s still a clearly talented individual. I don’t think his performance was as bad as some are making out – many look for a scapegoat no matter what – but Roy Hodgson does have a headache going into the huge game with Uruguay on Thursday evening as to what to do with him.

That game could ultimately decide whether we make it to the Second Round but Costa Rica’s victory opens things up a little bit more. Even a draw with Uruguay keeps us in the mix so long as the Costa Ricans don’t pull another surprise on Italy earlier in the day. That being a 5pm kick off means we’ll know exactly what we’re heading into stakes wise come 8pm in our game. Should Costa Rica lose then a draw would mean that we could yet go into the final game knowing that a big win would still take us through.

All of those permutations are likely to come second to practicality and experience this time out but if we can have both progress AND some exciting play that would be very nice too!

World Cup Blog #2 – The joy of low expectations…

group-dSo we’re now just two days away from the World Cup and four away from England’s opener against Italy in Manaus. The two friendly games played over the last week in Miami served differing purposes but at least one thing remains and that’s that expectations for England’s progression appears to be as low as it’s been for a while.

That’s not to say there’s not a fair share of optimism, excitement and hope around the country – rather the outlook is one based on the fact that we’ve got what many have been clamouring for in a younger squad that may just surprise one or two. I have no idea how the rest of the world views this current England squad but you would imagine that the likes of Italy and Uruguay will be counting a few chickens ahead of their meetings with us over the coming days.

If their managers and scouts have done their homework properly then it’s going to be very tough ask indeed for us to escape this  group. But what it does give us, for once, is the sense and feel of an underdog rather than a group of underachieving individuals labelled a ‘golden generation’ but never fully living up to the hype.

It’s got the feel of a pressing of the refresh button for England with Roy Hodgson a more than adequate leader of young men and experienced pros that have been there and done it all before. I’m excited by the prospect of an Adam Lallana, a Raheem Sterling, a Ross Barkley or even – as seen in fantastic flashes against Ecuador – an Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain just going for it and taking the game to the opposition.

The heat and humidity will of course play a part but with questions still remaining about who will indeed start in the three roles behind a locked in Daniel Sturridge there’s a lot more competition for places and if, come the hour mark in games, it’s needed there’s sure to be someone with that burst of energy required waiting on the bench.

The other end of the pitch is more concerning but the defensive showing against Honduras, which saw the back four that will face Italy replace a second string, was much improved. I wonder about Glen Johnson at right back and to a much small extent Leighton Baines on the left and their desire to gun forward but protection from the likely pairing of Liverpool’s Steven Gerard and Jordan Henderson is key. That duo will also be vital in slowing games down in the heat and we got a couple of uneventful but important periods in the Honduras game where ball retention was the tactic in practice.

Whatever happens the focus of the country returns to the England football team from Saturday evening – like it or not, it captures us all in a unique way. Just the other day I was walking through the village I live in and heard three separate groups of people debating outcomes of games, line ups and fears for the team in the space of around half an hour.

Back page news is about to become front page news, players we slated during the league season will be temporarily forgiven and rivalries between club fans go on the back burner. The World Cup is here and though we all dream of England defying the odds, isn’t it great for once to be cheering on a simple outsider?!

As my buddy Joel Sales wonderfully puts in the below World Cup song, my expectations are low…but let’s enjoy it while it lasts…

World Cup Blog #1 – A family affair at Wembley!


I had no real intention of getting a few World Cup blogs going to follow our nation’s progress (hopefully not lack of) over in Brazil. Then came Friday night and a family affair for me personally that was both a lot of fun and contained the sufficient ingredients to get me right back into being wrapped up in the international football scene again.

England are a funny old beast, particularly for us lower league football fans. Most of us (well those I know of anyway) would happily sacrifice an England World Cup win for just one season at the top table of the league pyramid or an FA Cup win. Such is the passion and local pride that goes into nine months of a season each and every year that it’s hard to get as lost in the fortunes of England every couple of years.

But as difficult as that is, once the summer competitions get going, once the flags start appearing in windows you can’t help but get thrown into the two weeks, hopefully more, of getting behind the group of players with ‘the world at their feet’ to coin a phrase from that much forgotten World Cup anthem by Embrace. This time around it’s happened earlier and while I’m not at fever pitch just yet the visit to Wembley on Friday evening last week for a rare treat of a live England match got the juices flowing. It was special for a different reason as well – my wife and her family are all Peruvian born with the majority of them still residing in Lima. Going along with Martha’s parents and brother plus nephew Jack presented me with plenty of playful ‘dagger eyes’ from the in laws whenever an England chance appeared!

It was the first visit to Wembley since that nightmare of a playoff final last May but luckily a spat of running late put pay to any tearful lingering and reminiscing on Wembley Way. We were seated behind the goal that the Cobblers’ faithful gathered behind a year ago and after getting into our seats it was a case of sitting back and enjoying football – something I rarely get the chance to do with the Cobblers.

The ball was actually sticking to feet, it was being played along the ground and in a passing style and it was clear that there’s a reason why these are the best our country has to offer. That being said, Peru hadn’t come to be pawns in an England training exercise. Indeed under new head coach Pablo Bengoechea they provided a stern resistance at the back with few chances early on and in fact could well have taken the lead when Jean Deza’ shot was deflected and woke up Joe Hart in the England goal with the man who had played for Shrewsbury Town against the Cobblers a few years back tipping the ball wide.

England’s patient build up was rewarded with a stunning Daniel Sturridge strike on the turn. I clearly wasn’t paying attention because I was taking tourist snap shots at the time…


The visitors were eventually broken down but their small gathering of supporters stayed at hearty and as passionate as I’ve learned to be true of most natives of Peru. Applauding all three England goals and generally creating a fine atmosphere of their own they were a class act throughout (and I’m not just saying that to earn brownie points with the relatives!)

The second half England goals came from Leighton Baines corners and his deliveries could be key in tight games this summer – it was good to see both centre backs on the score sheet and it hopefully will give us a second dimension to games that could be decided by a set piece. Also impressing on the day for me was Adam Lallana, another who not so long ago was tearing the Cobblers apart in a League Cup game at St. Mary’s. He’s surely now wrapped up one of the berths behind what looks to be Sturridge as the furthest men forward. On the other side, Danny Welbeck wasn’t half as comfortable in the role and it’ll be interesting to see how Hodgson plays it for the two remaining friendlies before the big kick off and if a Ross Barkley or Raheem Sterling can force their way into his thinking.

Overall it was a good send off and a happy Wembley as the masses streamed back towards the clogged up tube stations. It was a strange but nice experience to watch some of the biggest names in the country take to the field and while it will never compare to a Kelvin Langmead beast tackle or an Ivan Toney piece of magic it did work to get me into this here World Cup.

I’m not sure how much I’ll blog on the competition but likely until we pack our bags to come home – it also depends on the amount of transfer activity taking place at the ever changing Sixfields. It’s all gone quiet since Marc Richards returned barring some more extended contracts but hopefully the summer excitement won’t be contained solely across the pond and down a bit.

Lessons to be learnt from England outlook

No, this isn’t going to be a blog slating the England football team after another penalty shoot-out defeat and exit from a major competition. I’m not about to say how the Cobblers should learn lessons from anything that the national side did wrong. In fact, it’s quite the opposite as we now head full throttle into the pre-season schedule that lasts that little bit longer this year because of the Olympics.

We should actually be taking some of the attitudes and lessons from this summer’s campaign into our outlook for our own club as we look towards another nine month haul of what’s likely to include as much nerve jangling and bitten nails as ever before. The low expectation from the general Englishman was, in my eyes, a refreshing change and made us all go into this tournament with a feeling of the underdog about us rather than proclaiming that this was definitely to be our year. It struck me in its familiarity with Cobblers supporters during most months of July when bookies, managers and fans start building us up like it’s about to be 1987 all over again (Google it, kids!).

What happened over the last couple of weeks with England was that the players seemed to play with more focus than ever before. No, it’s not been free flowing or even slightly attack minded but to me that’s not what makes a great team. We watched Ian Atkins build a team of misfits in the nineties that gave us all one of the greatest days of our lives on the back of spirit, whole heartedness and a sheer desire to win at any cost. What everyone remembers is the score line from May 24th 1997 – Northampton Town 1-0 Swansea City. What everyone remembers is John Frain’s 93rd minute goal…at a push they’ll remember Woody’s fingertip save from Carl Heggs and the fact that Shaun Parrish almost snuck on in mid-way through the first half.

The point being, in the history books, a lot of the great Cobblers sides have been built on low expectation, backs to the walls battling and pride. Sound familiar? Of course England bowed out last night but compare that to the dreadful feelings from 2010 after Germany demolished our hopes. I know which one I would prefer.

The Cobblers are, in many ways, going about their business quietly this summer and long may that continue. Once Michael Jacobs completes his expected move to Derby that might well change a bit but Aidy Boothroyd isn’t shouting anything from the roof tops which is great to see.

The quiet and dignified manner that took England to Euro 2012 and the way that we played would be very welcome in my eyes in our League Two campaign. I honestly would prefer us to be scoring goals, making progress and showing spirit rather than try to pass the ball around the back four, play ‘attractive football’ and go nowhere. Going alongside that, we need to be patient in expectations and not let a bad start to the season get us down or shouting abuse.

Unfortunately we’re not the big fish in a small pond like perhaps we were when we were splashing a bit of cash in the 2003-2006 period. We need to understand that as supporters, embrace it and then if something comes of the season that feeling of elation will be ten times what it would have been if we simply went into the season with arrogance.

The players come back for pre-season very soon and I can’t wait to get stuck into it again. Things are likely to start picking up transfer wise soon and hopefully you’ll hear more from me too with previews and all sorts shaping up for July!